14 tips for raising the bar on memo writing

When people don’t read your memos, it’s not because they don’t like you, it’s because your writing is dreadful.

In a world of text messages, tweets, and e-mails, our standard for reading anything longer than three sentences has gone way up. Here is a hodgepodge of tips that might help:

  • First, focus solely on creation. Get all your thoughts onto a page in their most primitive a form (I know of no better tool than freewriting for this). Organize those thoughts into a first draft.
  • Editing isn’t next, rewriting is. Your first try will almost never be as good as your second. If a memo is worth writing, it’s worth rewriting at least once.
  • Now edit. Eliminate every unnecessary word, sentence, or paragraph. Check for spelling and typo errors. Have someone else edit your work too if possible.
  • Use only one space after periods. If you’re still using two, people might be secretly making fun of you behind your back.
  • Formatting is astonishingly important. If you pack everything together as tightly as possible, people won’t read. White space is your friend.
  • Don’t be afraid to bold key information or highlight the call to action. Make it as easy for the reader as possible.
  • People love numbered lists and bullet points. Don’t you?
  • Don’t try to build suspense or take people on an emotional journey. This isn’t creative writing. Get to the point as quickly as possible.
  • Summaries and appendices are great because they give people the option to read less or more, respectively.
  • Could this be better done with recorded video or audio? Voice over slides is another viable option. Have the courage to ask this question right before you’re about to send. Sometimes you won’t realize it until the memo is done, but just because it’s already written doesn’t mean you should send it.
  • Humor is great. Unless someone died or is getting fired, use it liberally. Joel Spolsky points out that even bad humor works. People will laugh with you or at you, either way, at least they’re still reading.
  • Diagrams and pictures are heavenly and can dramatically reduce word count.
  • Use plain informal language. Read the memo out loud to yourself. Do you talk like that? If you don’t then why are you writing like that?
  • Read a writing blog. Someone that will push you to improve your skills regularly. Jeff Goins has a good one

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